For Dwight D. Eisenhower, the passage of time (and an important 1982 scholarly book by Fred I. Greenstein whose title, “The Hidden-Hand Presidency,” has become a familiar term) transformed the former general from an inarticulate duffer and inveterate golfer into a shrewd if not cunning master of power, supplanting entirely the notion that the 34th president used the White House as a cozy retreat after his principal achievement, commanding Allied forces in Europe during World War II. This new view of Eisenhower was reinforced by last year’s masterly 976-page “Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently distributed to more than two-dozen Pentagon officials a study of Eisenhower’s handling of the 1956 Suez crisis.
For Lyndon B. Johnson, the passage of time (and volumes three and four — though pointedly not volume two — of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of LBJ) transformed the 36th president from a crude if not corrupt accidental chief executive, whose ineptitude sent tens of thousands to their deaths in Vietnam, into an ambitious if not quixotic spokesman for civil rights and an astral if not utopian advocate for social progress.
Bush has needed no revisionist tract to rehabilitate his image, though students of the presidency await Jon Meacham’s forthcoming biography.
In White House remarks at last week’s event, Neil Bush said his father urged his sons (and all Americans) to live meaningful, ambitious lives and, in the younger Bush’s words, to “find the dignity and goodness in every person.” Historical revisionism and popular reassessment often do just that, but it requires the presence of inner dignity and innate goodness in a president to accomplish it.
The elder Bush was a master of power politics in foreign affairs (at the Central Intelligence Agency as well as in the White House) and of hard-nosed politics in his election battles (especially in his 1988 battle with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts). But the country regards him today as an ineffable symbol of dignity and goodness. Sometimes the presidency isn’t so much a gift to an individual as it is to the nation.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.